Former General Services Administration chief Martha Johnson spoke out for the first time since her resignation earlier this month, telling the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee she was sorry and will mourn the loss of her appointment for the rest of her life.
Today’s hearing was the first of four that will be held this week to examine excessive spending at the agency following revelations of an $822,000 Las Vegas conference in 2010.
And the agency’s inspector Brian Miller, whose office originally uncovered the wasteful spending, told the committee the agency’s Region 9, which participated in the conference, remains under investigation for potential bribery and kickbacks.
Miller said the types of allegations his office is investigating are similar to misconduct at the Minerals Management Service that came to light in 2008 and eventually caused the breakup of the agency two years later.
The GSA official responsible for planning the 2010 Western Regions Conference, regional commissioner Jeff Neely, declined to answer questions from the committee, citing his Fifth Amendment privilege. Miller confirmed to the committee that he has recommended Neely’s case to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation.
Dispute over ‘draft’ report
Johnson was on the defensive most of the hearing about why she didn’t react sooner when IG Brian Miller briefed her on the interim report.
According to a timeline laid out by Miller, the IG said he delivered the interim report to Deputy GSA Administrator Susan Brita on May 17, 2011.
Deputy GSA Administrator Susan Brita then briefed Johnson on what the interim report found, however Johnson said she didn’t actually see the report herself and said it was more informal than an official interim report.
Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) questioned Johnson on why she never asked to see the 30-page interim report.
“I was aware of the PowerPoint slide deck, but I didn’t see it,” she said. “The deputy administrator saw it and shared information with us.”
Johnson said that report from the IG was the first time she learned about the conference spending.
“It was very clear that it was very serious and I didn’t want to move until we had the official, conclusive report,” Johnson said. “At the same time, I did a number of things to manage the situation. I named a new regional administrator in Region 9 to supervise Mr. [Jeff] Neely, who didn’t have direct supervision. I also named a new general counsel for the region.”
Johnson said she didn’t want to interfere with the IG’s investigation. “Now you have to understand: I did not think it would take nine more months to complete,” Johnson said. “I thought it looked pretty complete from what I was hearing, and I was not expecting to wait that much longer.”
During the hearing Monday, Neely, the suspended Region 9 PBS commissioner, invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent on all questions asked by the committee.
Neely said at the advice of his attorney, he would not answer any questions.
Issa then asked for Neely to be excused from the witness table to talk to him in private during a short break, but he never returned to the witness table.
“We hoped Neely would reconsider and cooperate here,” Issa said upon returning to the hearing.
During her testimony, Johnson said disciplinary actions, including dismissal, have been initiated by GSA for several of the career employees involved in the scandal, including Neely, Paul Prouty, the Denver regional administrator and former acting GSA administrator, and others.
Tangherlini seeks to recoup money
Along with possible termination or other disciplinary actions, the main actors in this conference drama may have to pay GSA back the costs of some of the conference activities.
Dan Tangherlini, the acting GSA administrator, said in written testimony that he sent letters to former PBS Commissioner Bob Peck, Neely and Robert Shepard, chief of staff for PBS in Region 9, asking for them to reimburse the government for private, in-room receptions at the Western Regions Conference.
“I will pursue other fund recovery opportunities,” Tangherlini said.